The First American

I live in Franklin County, Ohio, where the large statue of Benjamin Franklin pictured below is found at the county courthouse, so it makes sense that at some point I would finally turn to reading a biography of the county’s namesake.  I chose The First American, a fine recent biography by H.W. Brands that is well worth reading if you are interested in learning more about the early history of America and one of its foremost founding fathers.

Franklin is a fascinating character for more reasons that you can reasonably count.  During his lifetime, he was easily the most famous American alive, known and lauded in both America and in Europe for his experiments with lightning and electricity, his invention of the Franklin stove and other devices, and his writings, both in Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere.  He was a hard-working capitalist, turning his printers’ shop into a thriving business and engaging in a number of other commercial ventures, yet he also had his eye on the common welfare and the greater good and played a key role in forming colleges, fire departments, lending libraries, and philosophical societies.  He was exceptionally well-traveled for that era, crossing the Atlantic multiple times, living in England and France, and exploring all parts of the American colonies.  Franklin saw a lot of the world during his 80-plus years, and he unquestionably left it a better place than he found it through his efforts.

Franklin’s life story, more than any other, also is the story of the early days of America.  He was born in Boston and began his writing career jousting with the Puritan fathers who dominated the life and politics of Massachusetts at that time.  He moved to Philadelphia, which quickly grew into the largest and most prosperous city in the colonies, where he became a successful printer and public figure, crossed swords with the Penn family, the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and conducted many of the experiments and created many of the inventions that made him famous.  He was a public spokesman for the colonies during the French and Indian War and made one of the first proposals for colonial unification under a single government, served as a de facto ambassador for the colonies in Great Britain during the years leading to the Revolutionary War where he was castigated in Parliament, became a proponent for independence and returned to America just in time to serve as a member of the Continental Congress and an editor of the Declaration of Independence, then traveled to France to engineer the pact that brought the French into the war on the American side, to broker loans and trade deals to help supply the war effort, and then, after the battle of Yorktown, to negotiate the treaty that ended the conflict.  He returned to America, again, in time to serve multiple terms as Pennsylvania’s president and play an important role in the Constitutional Convention and in encouraging popular support for the new Constitution before dying, in the early days of the new Republic, as a revered and celebrated figure.

Franklin was not a perfect human; he had warts and missteps and embarrassing moments and times of hubris and thoughtlessness.  Yet you can’t help but be struck by the enormity of his accomplishments.  Throughout his 80-plus years of life, Franklin wrote countless letters, engaged with countless historical figures, and left a trail of sayings, witticisms, practical concepts, and scientific ponderings that would do credit to a legion of people.  And he invented bifocals, for which I am particularly grateful since I’ve worn them since I was about 6.

When I read about Franklin, I wonder:  where are the Franklins among our current political class, and is there anyone in our government who even comes close to his record?

 

Advertisements

“Off Year”

This year it’s what they call an “off year” election in Ohio. That means we’re not voting for President, or Governor, or Senator, or Members of Congress, or any statewide offices.

I hate that phrase, because it suggests that certain elections are more important than others. I don’t think that’s the case. This year, for example, Columbus residents voted for City Council, the school board, other city offices, and some state court judges. If you believe, as I do, that politics is local, those are some pretty important positions, and I’m glad I had the chance to vote for my choices. And the “off year” elections often are the ones where supporters of this or that try to sneak ballot initiatives past listless voters. That’s not going to happen on my watch!

Some people say “off year” elections are too expensive, but I disagree with that, too. Expecting citizens to go to the polls at least once a year in November to exercise the most important right of all isn’t asking much, and it’s worth a few bucks. If people can’t get off their butts and vote, shame on them.

When A Neighbor Assaults A Senator

On Friday, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky who was one of the many candidates who sought the Republican presidential nomination last year, was assaulted by his next-door neighbor.

11113635_10152962902206107_6867868766752394040_n1According to reports, Paul, who lives in a gated community near Bowling Green, Kentucky, had just stepped off his riding lawn mower when Rene Boucher, a retired anesthesiologist, tackled Paul, who was wearing ear guards and didn’t hear Boucher coming.  The assault was so violent that it broke five of Paul’s ribs, bruised his lungs, and left him with cuts on his face.  It’s not clear when Paul will be able to return to his job in the Senate.  Boucher has been charged with misdemeanor assault, and could be charged with a felony given Paul’s injuries.

Putting aside my revulsion at an unfair sneak attack and physical assault — regardless of our political views, I think we can all agree that tackling somebody from behind and breaking their ribs is not appropriate and must be punished — I at first was intrigued by the news that Paul mows his lawn himself.  I’m not in agreement with many of Paul’s positions on the issues, but it’s nice to know that there is still a Senator out there who still willingly experiences some of the basics of life, like cutting the grass.  Sometimes you wonder whether our members of Congress, rich, staffed to the gills, and surrounded by people sucking up to them at all times, have any concept of what it is like to live a normal life in America.  Cutting your own grass is a good start, so I applaud Senator Paul for that.

But the story of this dispute between neighbors seems to now be going deeper.  What would motivate a retired anesthesiologist, who has lived next to Paul for 17 years and once worked in the same hospital with him, to tackle a United States Senator?  Boucher’s lawyer said politics had nothing to do with it, and described the circumstances as a “very regrettable dispute between two neighbors over a matter that most people would regard as trivial.”  Some people in the area say that Senator Paul — who not only cuts his own grass, but also composts and grows pumpkins on his property — doesn’t pay much attention to property regulations in the area and has different views on property rights than his neighbors.  The story linked above cites some anonymous sources as saying that the dispute finally escalated into violence because of things like “stray yard clippings, newly planted saplings and unraked leaves.”  Could something minor like blowing yard debris really have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, propelling one neighbor in a fancy community to assault another?

It just goes to show you that, when it comes to neighbors, the baseline requirements are pretty low.  Living next door to somebody who won’t become enraged and assault you over a leaves, grass, and a compost pile is one of them.

Not Exactly Principled

Donna Brazile, the long-time Democratic operative who took over as the chair of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign, has published a tell-all book.  It’s the kind of political book that is described as “explosive,” because Brazile dishes the dirt on the likes of Hillary Clinton, the Clinton campaign, President Obama, and other topics that titillate the inside-the-Beltway crowd.  You can read the Washington Post article about the book and some of its revelations here.

brazileclintonstaffersgotohell-1280x720For example, Brazile now says that she was so concerned about Hillary Clinton’s health after Clinton’s fainting spell at the 9/11 ceremony that she actually considered exercising her ability as party chair to try to throw Clinton aside as the Democratic nominee and replace her with the ticket of Joe Biden and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.  Brazile says the Clinton campaign had no energy, disrespected her and the DNC, and didn’t allow the DNC to participate in get-out-the-vote efforts; she also recounts an incident in which she told Clinton campaign operatives that they were treating her like a “slave.”  She says that the fix was in on the primary battle between Clinton and Bernie Sanders due to a joint fundraising agreement between Clinton and the DNC that effectively gave the Clinton campaign control over finance, strategy, and staff decisions, providing it with an advantage over other candidates.

I read about Brazile’s disclosures in the Washington Post article linked above, and I wonder:  why do these political operatives always seem to wait until after everything is settled before speaking up?  Who knows whether, for example, providing information during the primaries so that the news media could report on the joint fundraising agreement might have made a difference in the result?  And when Brazile took over the DNC, why not immediately publicly expose the culture of corruption and financial mismanagement that she describes in her book?  But the D.C. operatives never seem to do that, do they?  Instead, they smile and give speeches and toe the party line during the campaigns, regurgitating the canned talking points on the Sunday morning public affairs shows and hoping for a good result so that they can be appointed to some plum position by the new President — but then when the results are bad, they write a tell-all book and make a hefty personal profit spilling the beans.

It’s not exactly principled behavior, is it?  Of course, this is the same Donna Brazile who, when she was a paid contributor to CNN, gave the Clinton campaign a heads-up on potential topics and questions that might be asked at a CNN town hall, so maybe she really didn’t care all that much about the Clinton campaign getting an unfair advantage.  And in any case, since when should we expect principled action from the gaggle of toadies and sycophants that seem to make up the vast majority of the political class in both the Democratic and Republican parties in this country?

Hang On To Your Wallets

Here’s some news that should cause all taxpaying Americans to feel a cold, hard lump in the pit of their stomachs:  Congress has decided to focus on “tax reform.”

ap17306662049220Congress’ decision to pivot to tax reform has produced all kinds of news stories, most of which have headlines that can only stoke the angst.  What does the proposed tax reform bill means for the value of your home?  What kind of hidden tax brackets might be found deep in the dense language of the proposed bill?  How will small business owners be affected?  What company’s stock price took a dive because the bill proposes repealing a crucial tax break?  All of these stories, and more, can be found simply by running a google search on “republican tax bill.”

The stories are indirectly reflective of the key problem with the federal tax code, because the many different areas of potential concern they address shows just how wide and deep is the reach and impact of our federal tax structure.  Virtually every company, industry, form of property, job, trade, college, technology, and concept is affected by some form of federal tax or federal tax break.  At the founding of the republic, Alexander Hamilton may have devised a simple approach to raising revenue to fund the federal government, but those days are long gone.  Now, the tax code is a complicated morass far beyond the ken of the average citizen, with special rates and breaks and benefits and exclusions and surcharges that only experts and lobbyists understand.

So, given that reality, why should the average citizen be concerned that Congress has decided it’s time to mess around with the tax code?  Because our political class, Republicans and Democrats alike, have shown they are primarily interested in raising lots of money so they can be reelected . . . which means the risk that some special provision written specifically to help a large donor will be inserted in the dead of night simply can’t be ignored.  And with the Dealmaker-In-Chief in the White House, who’s going to really dive into the details of whatever gets passed, trying to make sure that the average citizen doesn’t get gored while the special interests get their perks and sweetheart deals?

Maybe it all will work out, and the tax code will be made more fair and equitable and easy to understand, and we’ll be able to file our tax returns on postcards like the photo op pictures are indicating.  Maybe — but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then, I’m hanging on to my wallet.

Sentencing Sexting

On Monday former Congressman Anthony Weiner was sentenced to spend 21 months in federal prison for sexting with a minor.  He broke down and cried when the sentence was delivered.  Weiner, who had pleaded guilty to the offense, also was fined $10,000, will have to register as a sex offender, and will be subject to three years of supervised release after his prison term ends.

anthony-weiner-e4a324c0-fc5d-49b2-ac42-0b7f99f8b6e5Weiner’s lawyers had argued that he should receive only probation, contending that the case involved unusual facts and circumstances and that Weiner had made “remarkable progress” through participation in a treatment program for the past year.  After the sentence was announced, the lawyers contended that the punishment was more severe than it had to be.

The federal judge explained her sentence by noting that sexting with a minor is “a serious crime that deserves serious punishment.”  She added that Weiner’s notoriety was an significant part of the sentence — because people have paid attention to his conduct and his case, the sentence provided an opportunity to send a message that could change lives.  And Weiner could have received even more prison time.  The offense to which he pleaded guilty carries a maximum prison term of 10 years, and the sentence imposed by the judge was at the low end of the range suggested by federal prosecutors.

I think the judge got this one exactly right.  Weiner’s record of repetitive misbehavior shows an escalating pattern, and his conduct with the 15-year-old girl was reprehensible.  And it is important to use the sentence to send a message, on several levels — it not only notifies people that sexting with a minor will be sternly punished, but also shows that the politically powerful are subject to justice to the same extent as the rest of us.  In a time when politicians seem increasingly to live in their own secure little bubbles, distant and disconnected from the real world, the message that they will be held accountable for their illegal actions is an especially important one.

Dreaming A Big White House Lawn Mowing Dream

Recently President Trump got a letter from Frank Giaccio, a sixth-grader from Falls Church, Virginia.  The youngster said he admired President Trump’s background in business and that he was starting a business of his own:  mowing lawns for $8.  He had a proposition for the President — he’d come and mow the White House lawn for free.

white-house-lawn-mowed-02-pol-jpo-170915The President heard about his letter, and last Friday he gave the 11-year-old his wish.  Frank came to Washington, D.C. with his Dad, mowed the Rose Garden lawn, posed for pictures with the President, and said a few words to the media.  The President even sent out one of his famous tweets about Frank, thanking him for a lawn-mowing job well done.

We’ve heard similar stories before, about a young kid with a dream who dared to think big, and found out that sometimes thinking big gets rewarded with big results.  And in this country, we traditionally want and encourage our young people to dream big.  It’s a classic American feel-good story, right?

Not so fast!  No, some people in the Twitterverse pointed out that, by allowing a young kid to mow the lawn — even equipped, as young Frank was, with safety goggles, ear plugs, and gardening gloves, by the way — the President wasn’t sending “a great signal on child labor, minimum wage and occupational safety.”

Seriously?  Have we really reached the point in this country where a young boy who wants to start his own little business and make some money can’t mow a lawn under the supervision of his father without somebody invoking the great National Nanny State that has to control everything people do?  Have we really reached the point where we feel that mowing a lawn is just too dangerous a job for a kid to undertake?

I’m critical of most of what President Trump does, but I’m with him on this one.  Show our young people that they should dare to dream, even about something like mowing the White House lawn, because sometimes those dreams come true.  And stop the incessant hand-wringing and caterwauling about perceived risks everywhere that discourage kids from doing anything other than hunching over their video games in the living room.